In the old Soviet Union, the very mention of the name Israel was tantamount to blasphemy of the highest order. Not any more, as President Putin and PM Netanyahu have made it a habit of meeting frequently, a fact which reflects a totally different Russian approach to Israel than the old Communist superpower. That said, this time the stakes are extremely high, and there is a sense of unusual urgency so far as the Israeli leader is concerned.
It is being amply in display with the announcement made by the PM in the opening of the weekly cabinet session in Jerusalem, when Netanyahu, in what is a clear departure from usual diplomatic protocol, said in great detail what is the purpose of the meeting and what he intends to share with the Russian leader. It is Iran and Syria, and what the PM said contains both a correct factual description of the situation involving these two countries, but also a warning which astute observers of the Middle East situation, and Vladimir Putin is one, cannot easily brush aside. Netanyahu said, that Iran wants to force the Assad regime, or what is left of it, to allow it to establish permanent military presence in Syria, with a view to do it in the Syrian side of the Golan, in order to open a new front to Israel, which a Netanyahu made clear, will require Israeli reaction. Some context is in place here. First, Iran already has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of troops in Syria, either its own Revolutionary Guards, but also Lebanese Hizballah units, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and Afghan Shi’ite volunteers. Second, Hizballah which for all intents and purposes, is an integral arm of Iran’s military, has engaged recently in a campaign of threats against Israel, and the Israelis take them very seriously. Thirdly, Syria is in position to effectively resist Iranian pressures, as without Iran’s support, Bashar Assad is actually unable to cling even to the very tenuous control that he maintains over less than half of his country. Fourthly, and most importantly, Russia is THE foreign power whose support keeps Assad still in his palace in Damascus [if he is there], and Russia has already proved a responsible attitude towards its role in Syria by coming to an agreement with Israel, which has worked very well, about not interfering with Israeli activity aimed at Hizballah in Syria, as well as not operating its air force in South Syria, near the Israeli border. It is this point which will be the focus of the Putin-Netanyahu talks.
Israel can realistically expect Russia to be the force to neutralize Iran in Syria, as it fits also into Russia’s own strategic interest. There are already unverified reports about Russian commanders in Syria trying to restrict Hizballah actions there, but much more is needed here, and President Putin is aware of the overall Sunni Arab opposition to Iran presence in Syria, as well as to Turkey’s resentment of that. In the background is also President Trump anti Iran posture, and the possibility, that Russia could be credited with a Syrian arrangement, including American , Israeli, Turkish and Saudi consent, one which will allow Putin to keep Assad in Damascus, while Iran is out. Such arrangement is perfectly in line with the Trump Administration policy with regard to Syria, and will be also in conformity with the interests of Jordan and Egypt. A failure to achieve such arrangement, will weigh heavily on Israel, and the alternative to it can very well be an Israeli decision out of extreme national security necessity to deal by itself with Iran in Syria as well as Hizballah in Lebanon-VERY high stakes indeed. Still a decision which will still find Israel in line with most of the Arab world, which harbors the deepest possible suspicions towards Iran. That in itself is an indication of changing winds in the Middle East where Israel is slowly, gradually, and quietly is becoming an actor in regional Arab relations, rather than being the traditional bogeyman scapegoat. It may get also Trump Administration support. It is not really a Russian interest to have THIS scenario be the one to unfold, and it is therefore Russia’s call to make, and the odds are that it will accommodate if not in full, at least to a large extent, Netanyahu’s expectations so the Israeli leader will come back less worried than what he is now.